In which we drink Port, bet on Greyhouds, and I climb a Portuguese fortress in the pouring rain.
There were three things I knew about Macau before coming there last weekend. The first: Macau had been a Portuguese colony before 1999. The second: Macau’s internet was fast, meaning it more closely resembled Hong Kong than Mainland China. And three: because it’s filled to the brim with casinos and resorts, Macau is the Las Vegas of Asia.
Ant yet, I’m not much of a gambler. This may be embarassing, but up until this trip, I don’t think I’ve ever been inside a casino (but I’ve watched both 21 and Casino Royale, so that’s got to count for something, right?). What I hadn’t expected was for a casino environment to be so tense (the “what happens in Vegas!” ads lied). In Macau, the geriatrics in souvenir t-shirts (“I got Lucky in Kentucky!”) going to town on the slot machines are replaced by geriatrics in 1980s flower-power vests counting their every spin of the automated roulette table or throwing down hard at Baccarat tables.
But the casinos, were not my goal. The goal was experiencing the old Macau, eating Portuguese food, and figuring out what Port wine was and whether drinking it would make me cool (Bon Appétit is convinced it’s the next big thing). I had seen photos of Macau before, its yellow-brick paved plazas, its Mediterranean architecture, and the oxidized copper status on the ruin of St. Paul (of which just one facade remains), and I was on a mission to find the old city.
Macau is damp, like Hong Kong. It’s subtropical and although Zhuhai is just a ferry ride away, Macau feels untouched by the rest of China. Like Hong Kong, the majority of the street food is Cantonese – shrimp balls, fish balls, squid balls, and other seafood compressed into spherical shapes. We finished our first day with Hong Kong-style cashew shrimp, sweet and sour pork, and egg drop soup (with squishy mushrooms), which was strangely comforting, because Hong Kong style dishes come the closest to Chinese-American food in the U.S.
The best part of being in Macau, however, was the Portuguese food. It’s the salt cod (bacalao) boiled with potatoes, carrots, and cabbage, and served over olives and oil. It’s the shrimp sautéed with red peppers, garlic, chives, and white wine. It’s the slick sweetness of red port wine and the mildness of the black olives soaked in oil, with the pit still inside. So yes, I drank Port. And now I like port, because wine should always be sweet. And we should always be drinking digestifs.
Frivolous Monsters says
There was a programme on Radio 4 here, almost exactly a year ago, called ‘Macau: Monte Carlo of the Orient’ so I knew there was an Asian Las Vegas, but would never have been able to place where it was. I’ve dug it out and shall have another listen to see what they say about it.
I’ve never been in a casino too, and over here you imagine them to be seedy and the preserve of criminals. Not sure there’s the same glamour. One of the last things Tony Blair tried to do as Prime Minister (he’s now seen as a villain) was to turn the traditional coastal seaside resort Blackpool (we have our own miniature-ish version of the Eiffel tower, a few years younger than Paris) into a giant “super casino”. I think the only good thing Gordon Brown did when he replaced him was to cancel it.
p.s. we have a writer/documentary maker called Louis Theroux (oddly his cousin married Jennifer Aniston) who did a programme called ‘Gambling in Las Vegas’ about the people that hang out there. A lot of sad sights of local old people just shovelling money into slot machines every day.
One of my colleagues actually recommended the Louis Theroux documentary, which is on my to-watch list. I’m currently going through Peaky Blinders, which I believe is a BBC show.
I agree, there’s this underlying seediness in the casinos, at least the ones that I’ve seen, but largely because there is security outside that could rival the TSA in airports.
Frivolous Monsters says
Yeah Peaky Blinders is popular here, but I couldn’t get past the silly name when it was on. We have Louis Theroux and Jon Ronson who do similar stuff of going and interviewing weird people. Theroux more TV, Ronson more in print and on radio and he does stuff for your This American Life podcast. If there’s a group of KKK or neo-Nazis going they’ve surely been there.
The radio programme was more about how they’ve reclaimed a lot of land from the sea, and how it is a really good career there for the locals is they can last the training, although apparently profits are on the slide and they are actively trying to wean the local Macau economy off being over-reliant on the gambling there. Interviews with lots of happy tourists who went there and lost some money. They seem to have enjoyed the visit still.